Thursday, December 9, 2021

Film: West Side Story

West Side Story (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: West Side Story 
In Cinemas 

Premise: It is New York in the late 1950s and a swath of the West Side neighborhood of Manhattan is being razed to make way for a new performing arts complex known as Lincoln Center. In this landscape, two rival gangs are fighting to claim dominance of this soon-to-be demolished area. The Jets are white and the Sharks are Puerto Ricans, and a fight seems to break out every day between them. Tony (Ansel Elgort), the head of the Jets, was recently released from prison for almost killing a rival kid and swears to go straight, but Riff (Mike Feist) who has led the Jets in his absence keeps trying to pull him back in. At a dance in which both gangs are invited to show how much they have in common, Tony meets Maria (Rachel Zegler) and it’s love at first sight. But before you can say Montagues and Capulets, Maria is taken away by her friend Anita (Ariana DeBose) and her boxer brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), who just happens to be the head of the Sharks. Told by both respective gangs to stop seeing each other, Tony and Maria don’t listen and decide their love will transcend their differences. 

My Take: Why? Even after seeing it, the question is still unanswered. I understand why screenwriter Tony Kushner wanted to update the story to be more inclusive and less problematic. The Pulitzer Prize winner is probably the only writer with the cojones to ask another Pulitzer Prize winner, Steven Sondheim, if he could rewrite one of his shows. But why would Spielberg agree to make it? True, he has said he wanted to direct a musical, but knowing how big a movie fan he is, he must know how influential and iconic the original is as directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. What new perspective could he bring? This could have turned out to be a disaster like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” but Spielberg does a great job mainly by not getting too much in the way of the plot, the songs and most importantly, the dancing. However, the sets still feel sanitized and the gangs, when they aren’t carrying knives and guns, seem as dangerous as the Little Rascals. Kushner mixes the song order and changes the setting of some to alter their meaning. However, his biggest change was altering one character and adding a new one: Anybodys (Ezra Menas) is now a trans kid who aspires to be a Jet, and Valentina (Rita Moreno), who owns the Doc's, drug store where Tony works. Both feel gerrymandered into the plot to limited success. Moreno, who won the Oscar for playing Anita in the original, is a welcome presence in a film in which good hearted adults are in short supply. All the leads have their strengths and weaknesses (Elgot’s singing is passable and I didn’t feel any sympathy for Zegler’s Maria until the very end), with DeBose being the only triple threat triumph. 

VIP: Choreographer Justin Peck. Peck, who is a dancer and choreographer for the New York City Ballet and won a Tony for his dances in the recent “Carousel” revival, knows not to mess with success: Jerome Robbins’ original dances are as memorable as the songs. He just needs to adapt the dances enough to match how Spielberg wants to shoot them, and Peck does this so admirably. It amazes me that in both the original and the new versions, the gang’s language of ballet doesn’t feel odd on screen. It is just a given and accepted. Peck also gives us a wonderfully reimagined “America” dance, and the “Dance at the Gym” is as energetic and exciting as always.

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